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Why can't our nihilists just be nihilists? Do they all harbor, deep inside, a sense of tortured sentimentality?

Chuck Palahniuk, the reigning in-your-face malcontent of pop lit, draws legions of male fans to his debauched cartoons of lust, violence and despair. And while Choke, his second novel, has plenty of interesting ideas, it's really a less pyrotechnic rehash of Fight Club's central themes, namely social rebellion, stunted identity and anomie.

Too bad writer-director-actor Clark Gregg misses what makes Palahniuk's work interesting — his mordant satire and stringent pathos — and instead translates the author's weaknesses — his messy plotting and affected sense of perversion — to the screen.

Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) is a med school drop-out and sex addict who earns a living as a colonial theme park character. In order to pay for the private care of his dementia-ridden mother (Anjelica Huston), he cons fancy restaurant patrons into rescuing him from choking then bilks them of the money he needs. This dovetails with Victor's long-standing issues with abandonment and intimacy. See, before his mom started losing her grip on reality, she was a drug-addled drifter who'd kidnap Victor from his foster parents in order to drag him along on some interstate adventure.

When Victor becomes involved with a strange physician (Kelly Macdonald) on his mother's floor, he starts down the road to emotional healing. Until, that is, stories of his immaculate conception start floating around.

For his filmmaking debut, Gregg, who plays Rockwell's colonial boss, has bitten into some awfully challenging material and isn't quite up to the task of making it work. Palahniuk has a hyperactive, transgressive vigor that doesn't square with Gregg's laconic and breezy approach. He fails to find an overriding narrative rhythm or visual style and, as a result, there's no buzz in Choke's caffeinated storyline. What should be subversive and ironic ends up feeling sentimental and sincere; odd words to describe Fight Club's author's work. It also robs the movie of many of its black-comedy laughs. Strange as it sounds, Gregg turns a movie about insanity, sexual addiction and a messiah complex into a maudlin exercise in mother-son redemption.

Still, there are enough good satirical moments — in particular, Victor's one-night stand with a controlling and fastidious rape-fantasist and, later, Rockwell's encouraging words of advice to a romantic rival while the sleeping object of their affection clasps his dick — that Choke may find a small but loyal audience.

Similarly, Rockwell and Huston are terrific. He does a fabulous job of balancing Victor's sarcastic sleaziness with the anger and longing he feels for his mother. It's hard to make an audience sympathize with an opportunistic jerk like Victor, but Rockwell pulls it off. Huston, with her dark saucer eyes, elicits both disgust and deep sympathy as the movie reconciles her selfishly loony younger days with the sad, addled woman she's become.

As an author whose novels are often described as unfilmable, Palahniuk's Choke comes as close to the mainstream — in its defiantly anti-mainstream way — as anything he's written. Unfortunately, to make it work you need a filmmaker with more vision than Gregg's flat, TV-style direction. In contrast to David Fincher's high-gloss, high velocity approach to Fight Club, Choke's whimsical and warped tale of sexual addiction never rises to the occasion.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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